Building Better Schools

Elizabeth Gore won a surprise victory in the IPS board race. Now everyone is wondering what to expect.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Elizabeth Gore is one of three new board members.

The Indianapolis Public Schools Board is starting the new term with a few unknown faces but perhaps the biggest mystery is a returning player.

After a bruising fight for control of the board, candidates aligned with the current administration won in a landslide, with one exception: Elizabeth Gore beat incumbent Sam Odle. But why she won — and whether she will stand against a board that is reshaping the district — is uncertain.

Gore is well known in the community, and she previously served on the board. But she lost her seat in 2012, when pro-reform advocates captured control. Even Gore is uncertain what was different this time around.

“I’d like to think, ‘What was that magic thing I did?’ ” Gore said. “But my way of doing things is the same. … My message is always the same.”

The election landscape, however, was a bit different. For the first time in recent years, candidates who have pushed for aggressive change — from partnering with charter schools to giving principals more independence — faced organized opposition in the battle for control of the board. A loose network of critics formed OurIPS, a grassroots group that partnered with Concerned Clergy to endorse and campaign for a slate of challengers.

Despite those efforts, every one of the candidates OurIPS backed lost on Election Day.

Instead, pro-reform candidates won an almost complete victory with the support of groups such as Stand for Children Indiana. A parent-organizing group that wages well-financed campaigns for its slate of candidates, Stand only suffered one loss in November, Odle’s defeat by Gore.

Gore, however, isn’t easily placed in the sides that were drawn in the race. Although she is sometimes critical of the administration, she was not endorsed by OurIPS and she did not run an explicitly ideological campaign. She raised about $1,200 during the race, a fraction of $25,626 Odle had raised in October.

Justin Ohlemiller, executive director of Stand, said voters showed their strong support for changes in the district by electing most of the candidates the group endorsed. But he wasn’t sure what lessons to draw from Gore’s victory.

“I take at the end of the day those ballots being counted on Election Day to be a message,” he said. “But what that message is, I don’t know.”

It is also possible that Odle, a retired healthcare executive, was a particularly weak candidate. He faced criticism ahead of the election for serving as a board member for ITT Educational Services, a for-profit college that filed for bankruptcy last month following severe federal sanctions.

For Chrissy Smith, an IPS parent and active member of OurIPS, Gore’s victory is encouraging because it shows even people without much money can win. If critics of the administration are able to field candidates who are better known and respected in the community, she said, they have a stronger chance of winning future elections.

Smith is holding out hope that as a board member, Gore will be a dissenting voice who opposes the administration’s efforts to create innovation schools. Innovation schools, which are considered part of IPS but are managed by outside partners, are one of the most controversial pieces of the board’s agenda.

Gore shares some concern over the rapid expansion of innovation schools. But she does not see herself as an adversarial force on the board.

“I think when coming on the board, I have the thought process of agreeing to disagree,” Gore said. “Nobody agrees on everything all the time.”

OurIPS was defeated in the election, but the people who supported the group won’t be disappearing, Smith said. They are still in the early stages of planning but they aim to get more parents and community members involved.

For now, they want the school board to know that critics are still watching, Smith said. “They may have been voted in but they still have a responsibility to everyone in the district.”

Whether critics are able to sustain their movement and attract more people hinges in part on the outcomes of the district’s dramatic changes. Many of the innovation schools are designed to improve the district’s lowest-performing schools, but the administration does not yet have much evidence that its policies are improving test scores.

Board President Mary Ann Sullivan, who has been a strong advocate for changes in the district, said that if their work starts to pay off, she expects opposition to diminish.

“The best case scenario is that we start seeing more of the fruits of our labors,” Sullivan said. “It’s hard to argue with success.”

Achievement School District

Tennessee’s turnaround district gets new leadership team for a new chapter

PHOTO: TN.gov
Malika Anderson became superintendent of the state-run Achievement School District in 2016 under the leadership of Gov. Bill Haslam.

Tennessee is bringing in some new blood to lead its turnaround district after cutting its workforce almost in half and repositioning the model as an intervention of last resort for the state’s chronically struggling schools.

While Malika Anderson remains as superintendent of the Achievement School District, she’ll have two lieutenants who are new to the ASD’s mostly charter-based turnaround district, as well as two others who have been part of the work in the years since its 2011 launch.

The hires stand in contrast to the original ASD leadership team, which was heavy with education reformers who came from outside of Tennessee or Memphis. And that’s intentional, Anderson said Friday as she announced the new lineup with Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

“It is critical in this phase of the ASD that we are learning from the past … and have leaders who are deeply experienced in Tennessee,” Anderson said.

New to her inner circle as of Aug. 1 are:

Verna Ruffin
Chief academic officer

PHOTO: Submitted
Verna Ruffin

Duties: She’ll assume oversight of the district’s five direct-run schools in Memphis called Achievement Schools, a role previously filled by former executive director Tim Ware, who did not reapply. She’ll also promote collaboration across Achievement Schools and the ASD’s charter schools.

Last job: Superintendent of Jackson-Madison County School District since 2013

Her story: More than 30 years of experience in education as a teacher, principal, director of secondary curriculum, assistant superintendent and superintendent in Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma and Tennessee. At Jackson-Madison County, Ruffin oversaw a diverse student body and implemented a K-3 literacy initiative to promote more rigorous standards.

Farae Wolfe
Executive director of operations

Duties: Human resources, technology and operations

Current job: Program director for the Community Youth Career Development Center in Cleveland, Miss.

Her story: Wolfe has been city manager and human resources director for Cleveland, Miss., where she led a health and wellness initiative that decreased employee absenteeism due to minor illness by 20 percent. Her work experience in education includes overseeing parent and community relations for a Mississippi school district, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Leaders continuing to work with the state turnaround team are:

Lisa Settle
Chief performance officer

PHOTO: Achievement Schools
Lisa Settle

Duties: She’ll oversee federal and state compliance for charter operators and direct-run schools.

Last job: Chief of schools for the direct-run Achievement Schools since June 2015

Her story: Settle was co-founder and principal of Cornerstone Prep-Lester Campus, the first charter school approved by the ASD in Memphis. She also has experience in writing and reviewing curriculum in her work with the state’s recent Standards Review Committee.

Bobby White
Executive director of external affairs

PHOTO: ASD
Bobby White

Duties: He’ll continue his work to bolster the ASD’s community relations, which was fractured by the state’s takeover of neighborhood schools in Memphis when he came aboard in April 2016.

Last job: ASD chief of external affairs

His story: A Memphis native, White previously served as chief of staff and senior adviser for Memphis and Shelby County Mayor A.C. Wharton, as well as a district director for former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr.

A new team for a new era

The restructuring of the ASD and its leadership team comes after state officials decided to merge the ASD with support staff for its Achievement Schools. All 59 employees were invited in May to reapply for 30 jobs, some of which are still being filled.

The downsizing was necessary as the state ran out of money from the federal Race to the Top grant that jump-started the turnaround district in 2011 and has sustained most of its work while growing to 33 schools at its peak.

While the changes signal a new era for the state-run district, both McQueen and Gov. Bill Haslam have said they’re committed to keeping the ASD as Tennessee’s most intensive intervention when local and collaborative turnaround efforts fail, even as the initiative has had a mostly lackluster performance.

“Overall, this new structure will allow the ASD to move forward more efficiently,” McQueen said Friday, “and better positions the ASD to support the school improvement work we have outlined in our ESSA plan …”

In the next phase, school takeovers will not be as abrupt as the first ones that happened in Memphis in 2012, prompting angry protests from teachers and parents and outcry from local officials. Local districts will have three years to use their own turnaround methods before schools can be considered for takeover.

It’s uncertain where the ASD will expand next, but state officials have told Hamilton County leaders that it’s one of several options on the table for five low-performing schools in Chattanooga.

transfer talk

This seemingly small change could make it easier for guidance counselors to send students to transfer schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A guidance counselor at Bronx Academy of Letters

New York City is planning to make it easier to refer students to alternative high schools — part of a broader effort to remove obstacles for students seeking admission to them.

The change will affect the city’s 52 transfer schools, which are designed to catch up students who have dropped out, are over-age or behind in credits. Guidance counselors at traditional high schools will be able to electronically recommend up to three transfer school options for students they believe would be better served in different settings.

That change might seem minor, but it is at the center of a wider debate playing out behind the scenes between the city’s education department — which has indicated that transfer schools are being too picky about who they admit — and transfer schools themselves, some of which worry the new policy could lead to an influx of students who have been pushed out of their high schools.

“There’s a significant fear from transfer schools that these will essentially be over-the-counter placements,” said one Manhattan transfer school principal, referring to a process through which the city directly assigns students who arrive after the admissions process is over, often mid-year. “It doesn’t necessarily make for a better fit for a student.”

Unlike most high schools in New York City, transfer schools admit students outside the centrally managed choice process. Instead, they set their own entrance criteria, often requiring that students interview, and meet minimum credit or age requirements. The schools themselves largely determine which students they admit, and accept them at various points during the year.

Some transfer school principals say this intake process is essential to maintaining each school’s culture, which depends on enrolling students who genuinely want to give school another try after dropping out or falling behind elsewhere.

But city officials have quietly scaled back the type of sorting transfer schools can do, banning them from testing students before they’re admitted, for example, or looking at attendance or suspension records. The transfer school superintendent also now has the power to directly place students if they are rejected from three transfer schools.

Given those changes, some transfer school principals are wary of the latest policy, which will allow guidance counselors at traditional schools to electronically “refer” students for up to three specific transfer schools, and requires transfer schools to track their interactions with those students.

The city says the new system will make it easier to find the right match between schools and students. It will “make the transfer high school admissions process easier and more transparent for students and families, while also ensuring better tracking and accountability,” education department spokesman Will Mantell said in a statement.

He noted the city is still working on implementation and the change won’t will happen before spring 2018. (The education department currently doesn’t have a way to track how many students are being recommended to transfer schools versus how many are actually accepted.)

Mantell could not say whether guidance counselors would need a student’s consent before electronically referring the student to a transfer school, and could not point to any specific policies on when it is appropriate for guidance counselors to refer students — though he noted there would be additional training for them.

Ron Smolkin, principal of Independence High School, a transfer school, says he appreciates the change. He worries about students who have fallen behind being told they “don’t qualify” for a transfer school, he said. “That’s why we exist.”

But other principals say it will make it easier for traditional schools to dump students because they are difficult to serve, regardless of whether they are good candidates for a transfer.

“There’s a greater risk of pushouts,” the Manhattan transfer school principal said.

Transfer school principals also worry about the consequences of accepting students who might be less likely to graduate than their current students — a potential effect of the new policy. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires high schools to graduate 67 percent of their students; those that don’t will be targeted for improvement.

Some transfer schools have called that an unfair standard since, by design, they take students who have fallen behind. The state has said transfer schools will not automatically face consequences, such as closure, if they fail to meet that benchmark, but it remains to be seen whether that entirely solves the problem.

One transfer school principal said the city’s desire to better monitor the admissions process makes sense, but won’t prevent schools from gaming the system — and is being implemented without adequate input from principals.

“Our voices haven’t been heard in this process,” the principal said, “and there are a lot of reasons to distrust.”